College Friends: Yo we’re joining a co-ed Chemistry fraternity. You should join.
Alex: Rad, sign me up!
CF: Hey there’s this Chemistry workshop for visually impaired students. I think you’d like it.
Alex: F yeah I would!
CF: Hey I can probably get you a job as a medical scribe. You should apply.
Alex: Sounds awesome! Send me the application.
Continue scene in perpetuity.
I was born into complacency. It’s nobody’s fault. There are just only so many resources available to the human brain. When you are struggling and poor there is only so much energy left to be daring. Unfortunately, American society suggests (nay expounds) that success belongs only to those who are able to grab life by the reins, pull themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, or I don’t know…floss every day. Basically whatever shit white people/politicians say or generally think I’m not doing enough of. Given my relative deficiency of Protestant zeal, my only approach to this has been to ride the coattails of brilliant people around me. This is sort of a hood secret that generally only mothers know about. This enduring pressure to succeed escapes no one. I guarantee that the most maligned Chicago gang member does not glance down at the laces of his patent leather Air Jordans and metaphorically think: ‘Hmm, better to just sit down and wait for somebody to tie these bitches.’ We all try to succeed and do great things, myself very much included. So why is it so god damn hard for some of us to make things happen ourselves???
I believe the problem starts with the idea that most worthwhile opportunities require a certain amount (or type) of what I like to think of as ‘creative audacity.’ I did not come pre-programmed with much of this and for the most part neither did my parents. When I look back on nearly every cool thing I have done for most of my life, there is another person to whom I can point as the genesis for that idea. Yes I went away for college, but to the very same university in California my older brother attended. Sure I first went to Africa fairly young, but my cousin Marvie arranged the trip and my family secured all the funding before I even knew about it. Even my second trip to Africa was to the very same hospital the very same cousin had worked the year before. Big decisions like these are rarely born from my own neurons. Fuck I can’t even go to a new restaurant without reading 13 affirmative Yelp reviews first. Those with privilege generally take this for granted. They likely have parents or an aunt/uncle who is a medical professional or business person. People with my background do not have this.
Having grown up just North of poverty, the idea of traveling to distant lands just never entered my mind. Literally nobody I knew considered this type of thing. This is not to say that I didn’t go on regular adventures in the streets and forests around my neighborhood, but my vision never ventured further. Of course my family did not have the time or the money for such things, but more importantly we lacked an obvious pathway to experiencing the world. My Filipino family firmly entrenched in the first world and very rarely visited the motherland. As for the white contingent, a few chose to embrace the word of Jesus which brought them to many reaches of the world (high-five Hawks,) but the rest might as well be passport-less heartland Drumpf supporters. I am contractually obligated to exempt my long-lost black cousins here as well of course (shout out Walkers.) Because of all of this I have to seriously push myself when I travel.
The first seeds of audacity in my family were actually planted by my white grandmother and slowly watered by my mother (who will be the only one reading this to the end and commenting at the bottom…God bless her.) You see when my mother was fairly young, my grandmother bought her a lifetime subscription to National Geographic Magazine. As a child it seemed like we always had a new magazine filled with giraffes, crocodiles, zebras, and scantily clad tribal women. My mother, probably subconsciously, became enthralled with Africa and so we all had to watch a shit ton of movies like Out of Africa and Gorillas in the Mist as kids. The first full leaf sprouted when my mother went all the way to the Serengeti for her honeymoon some years later. The sight of your parents (especially two white ass white people) kicking it with Maasai across the world goes a long way to opening up the part of your brain that could dare to do the same. You can ask any of my friends in college and they will tell you that I always knew I would visit Africa. I couldn’t say why, how, or when…but somehow I knew that shit was happening.
When people used to ask why I wanted to go to Africa, I used to just shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and mumble something about the cradle of life. Over time the answer has matured. I absolutely love and value new cultures. I also enjoy the contrast of pace and friendliness from home, but it’s more than just these things for me. I’ve come to think of Africa as the ultimate assault on complacency. If you can gather enough steam to get your ass all the way to Africa and endure the heat, mosquitoes, and culture shock you are destined to experience there, then you can go anywhere. So when I first thought about traveling alone to Lamu near the Somalia border, advised against by the US State Dept, it was not so much thoughts about a tropical weekend so much as the same familiar barriers popping up. ‘Can I handle traveling alone? Where will I stay? Will I be safe? Is it even worth it? Ughh it sounds like so much work.’
This is why I dragged my younger brother to Uganda last year, and somewhat purposely bought my plane ticket to arrive several days after he did. Even though he’d never left the country. This is also why I mentor under-represented students who have abundant talent and energy, but lack only the creative audacity to think about medicine as a career. I do this for them, like I benefited from the few who did this for me. Yesterday, I received an e-mail from a high school student who attended one of the ‘Doctor For a Day’ clinics we run for students who are under-represented in medicine. She enjoyed my story and the motivational Notorious B.I.G. quote I finished with and sought some mentoring help. Perhaps something resonated within her, like the image of my parents throwing an Aerobie across the Serengeti. I signed my reply ‘Cheers from Mombasa!’ not to brag…but to empower. THIS is why I go to Africa. Yes I also enjoy and value the clinical exposure, but I am nobody’s savior here. I am just a poor brown kid from the city remembering that if I think about those who will come after me, it’s ever-so-easier to remember to jump.
Stay tuned for Lamu part II…
Stay far from timid,
Only make moves when your heart’s in it,
And live the phrase ‘Sky’s the Limit’
The Notorious B.I.G. – Sky’s The Limit